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Civil Rights and Immigration Reform: Do they Belong Together?

A Democratic and Republican agree immigration reform is good for the country at a summit marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Image: People rally for immigration reform in Washington, DC
People rally for immigration reform in Washington, DC on Feb. 17, 2014.NBC News

Mayor Julian Castro, a Democrat, and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, did Tuesday what has escaped the U.S. House for about a year _ they had a bipartisan discussion about immigration reform.

Under the banner of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the two agreed that immigration is good for the economy and expressed optimism that reform was coming, either later this year or in 2016. They differed on some issues, mostly whether there has been any improvement in border security.

“About the stupidest thing we can do economically is make them leave,” Barbour said of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. He added any immigration reform is better than the system in place now.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, began marking Johnson's civil rights legacy Tuesday with a three-day summit of panels and events. President Barack Obama is to speak Thursday. The agenda also includes former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Although the Civil Rights Movement is more often associated with the rights of black Americans, the well-being of Mexican children was very much on the mind of Johnson as he pressed for dramatic social change through civil rights laws.

Johnson taught at a “Mexican school” in Cotulla, Texas, before he occupied the Oval Office. He recalled those children in his 1965 “We Shall Overcome" speech he delivered after the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of civil and voting rights marchers in Selma, Ala.

"They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice," Johnson said of the children. "They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes."

One of the landmark civil rights bills signed by Johnson was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law opened immigration to people from other countries. Until then, immigration had favored Europeans. The law helped bring dramatic change to the country’s demographics.

"I see this as a time of celebration and a time of reflections. We have come a really long way in terms of rights afforded to folks ...(but) I think Latinos are at the intersection of new challenges on the civil rights front," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an adjunct professor of public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs who has done research on the history of voting rights and poll taxes.

Soto said Latinos are facing the same challenges as before in terms of voter ID and other voting participation challenges, but also immigration crackdowns. "I see immigration as a new frontier for civil rights. How Latinos in states like Arizona are treated," for example, she said before the panel discussion.

Castro said immigration can still be seen as a civil right. “When we think about what we classically think about the civil rights movement that’s what it was about. It was about people who were different and whether they would be treated equally or not.”

In two months, Congress will mark a year since the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill. The GOP-controlled House rejected the bill and set out to craft several bills to handle the many complex aspects of immigration. But none of those have moved to the House floor for a vote amid resistance and fears of reprisals for some GOP members in this year's midterm primaries.

The stall has led some immigration reform advocates to turn their ire on Democrats and Obama. An audience member who said she and her friend were DREAMers, young immigrants who arrived here illegally, called on Castro to declare whether he was on their side. Castro said later in response to a question from the moderator that he is not comfortable with the number of deportations.

A group of young people scheduled a news conference Wednesday in protest of Obama’s upcoming appearance. The group, University Leadership Initiative said in a statement it is “challenging Obama on his merit of speaking on civil rights."

Although the summit included panels on gays and women and a panel of all-black speakers discussing the heroes of the civil rights movement, there were no panels dedicated to Latinos and their equality struggle. Later this week, Texas' education board is scheduled to vote whether to add Mexican American studies to the state's school curriculum.

“The panel featuring San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro … is about immigration, which is one of the most important issues facing the Hispanic community in the United States,” Elizabeth Christian, LBJ Foundation Board president said in a statement, in response to queries about the summit agenda from